Not long ago, I found myself in the wrong room, where everyone in the room was conversing in a foreign language. I didn’t know which language it was but it sounded like a cross between Mongolian and Gobbledygook. It was in one of those large modern boardrooms with a table bearing a swanky coffee-maker and assorted cookies. Girls ran that meeting. Three of them. Paveen, Anataria and Ann, they were called. There was also Ivory, my manager—another girl. The only other man in the room was a gentleman who died tragically a few weeks after that meeting. [Rest in Peace Allan Ngugi]. Something had been projected on a screen, I don’t remember what, but it looked pretty serious. Have you seen doctors gather around an X-ray of someone who has a pair of scissors and coins lodged in his gut? That’s how they stared at the screen; solemnly,with great inquisitiveness.
One of the girls would say, “The TLIP aims to address this challenge by developing and implementing an electronic exchange of trade information across borders.” Before I could grasp and process what she just said, someone else chimed in, “I think perhaps it’s vital that Biko gets to know about the OSBP that was launched not so long ago? That information is important for context.” I’m sorry, OSB-what? Then someone else would say something, “….blah blah blah and that should be done in this FY.” Did she mean FYI? Was the “I” silent? When someone said, “…etc etc,” I wanted to stand up and shout, “I know that one! I know that one! It’s etcetera etcetera!”Then I’d be given a cookie. To shut up. It was like a tennis match in there, but instead of a ball, they kept serving trade wonk. Stuff like “NTBs” which sound to me like Tuberculosis but which actually was “non-tariff barriers.” Or “PPD”, which turned out to be “public-private dialogue.”
I was out of my depth.
I wrote a note and passed it to Ivory. “Do you know what’s going on here? I’m hungry.” She read it and rolled her eyes. This meeting was happening at TMEA, which basically means, Trademark East Africa, but nobody calls it that because that would be too mainstream. The aforementioned OSBP turned out to be “One Stop Border Point” that has reduced the border crossing time of goods, people and vehicles to 70%. Automation. Clearance time. “Kenya has seven OSBP in Busia, Namanga, Malaba…” I heard someone say as I came up for air, “and these truck drivers now don’t have to spend days queuing at the borders…Biko maybe you should write a story around this.” I don’t remember correctly but then I said I’d love to do that story but from the truck drivers perspective. “We can get you one to interview,” Paveen said.
“Or I could ride with them in their trailer.”
“From Mombasa to Kigali?” Ann asked.
“Yes. Maybe with a woman truck driver?”
And that’s how I found myself at the port of Mombasa this month on a Monday, touring the facility with a bunch of dark-suited, important-looking men from the government of Rwanda. I thought the port would be small and disorganised. Au contraire, it’s massive and automated. They have the Port Charter now, which improves on the efficiency of maritime, inter-terminal and hinterland connectivity and increases service level at the port. So, like ship turnaround time, berth occupancy and cargo dwell time.
We went up to the tower. At some point I got bored standing at the back of this delegation wondering why they are constantly taking notes. I was to meet the lady driver and set off the next day but these things take time, getting the lady driver headed to Kigali. Plans changed, Kampala went on a lockdown, which meant instead of passing through Kampala to head to Kigali, they were thinking of sending me to Tororo. Tuesday came and went. Wednesday came and went. I was just cooling my heels in the coast. I couldn’t even have a drink because I’m on this silly H Pylori drug that makes me emotional and paranoid. When I take it, I think a coconut might fall out of the sky and hit me on the head.
I didn’t mind the wait much; they had set me up at English Point Marina, a nice apartment with a view. [Service was wanting]. I spent the mornings at the port and afternoons in my room, prowling around, watching Peaky Blinders, waiting for the green light. I called a very old friend I hadn’t spoken to in years and said, “Faridah, it’s Biko.”
“Oh hey, Biko!!”
“I’m in your neck of woods, do you have time for tea?”
“Oh sorry I’m preparing for a big event this weekend.”
“No, ha-ha, I’ve been married nine years now, Biko.”
“No shit. Kids and all?”
“Do you like them?”
Anyway, we had lemon iced-tea at the Moorings (the best I’ve had). When I told her I planned to get on a trailer to Uganda she only had one pertinent question, “Where will you shower?”
In the evenings I’d have dinner alone at the deck overlooking old town, lights shimmering on the channel. It’s lonesome to look at a beautiful sight alone. At night I’d crawl into bed and stare at the ceiling, then read until my Kindle fell off my hands in my sleep. Thursday came with the news that they had finally found a lady driver. “Be ready at dawn tomorrow.”
I sat waiting for the driver on a plastic chair at a desolate petrol station, outbound, on the edge of Mariakani. It was about 8:30am, the sky blue and the air salty. I had a suitcase and a small knapsack bearing paraphernalia. A suitcase for chrissake. As if I was going for a cruise. I had packed like an idiot; nice clothes, improper shoes, white t-shirts, too many socks and four pairs of underwear, one which was wet because it hadn’t dried properly. I had my laptop (I didn’t use it) and a pharmacy containing antihistamine, painkillers, tablets for indigestion, throat lozenges and my H. Pylori meds. I could have packed antivenom if I could get my hands on some.
A big 14-wheeler snaked into the petrol station and sighed to a stop at the exit. An sms on my phone: “Nimefika.” I dragged my suitcase, reached up and opened the passenger door. I hoisted my suitcase on the seat before struggling to climb up. I wondered if a pregnant woman could climb up a trailer. “Sasa? Mimi ndio Faith,” Faith said. She looked like Faith. There are people who will tell you, “Hi, I’m Martha but they don’t look like Martha. They wear the name like a borrowed dress. Faith was light and didn’t look like a trailer driver. I expected someone robust with thick arms, small ears and a scar on their left cheek. Faith was very feminine donning a bright top and bright canvas shoes and clean dreadlocks.
“Biko,” I said in introduction, looking around the cabin. She asked me to throw the suitcase at the back, which contained a mattress, a pink duvet, pillow, meko, sufurias and spoons in a bucket, rice, unga for ugali, salt, cooking oil, sugar, long-life milk and tea leaves. She engaged one of the 12-gears and the trailer sighed again like someone with a back problem, and we joined the main road. The first thing you notice when you ride in a trailer is how high UP you are in the cabin. And then next how slow the trailer is. It’s like riding on the back of an elephant.
It was a manual. “Hii ni 12-gears, plus reverse,” Faith told me. She also mentioned we were carrying 30 tons at the back. You could feel the sheer force of the weight. I cocked my elbow out the window and stared out at the slowly changing vegetation. Dwellings fell away and soon it was just a scraggly landscape of mountains rising and falling, hills flattening and meeting other hills, trees running next to us, the sky so devoid of clouds, a blue so clear it should be named God’s Blue.
She told me about her life in the first two hours. She used to be a hawker in traffic, living in a cramped one-roomed house in Kariobangi with a bunch of other girls, then she was a househelp in Changamwe working for an evil relative. One day she saw a woman driving a big truck. She was leaning out the window brashly telling someone to sod off. She was so taken by the sight, that a seed was sown. She loved her confidence, the power she wielded up there in that truck. She wanted to be that girl who leans out the window and tells folk to sod off. She quit her job not long after, and told her relative to put it in her piper and smoke it. Driving school followed. Matatu driver in Changamwe. Matatu driver for 2NK in Nyeri-Nairobi then upgrading her license to the trailers, getting a gig to drive a trailer transporting all manner of goods—bathroom slippers, sweets, grains—to Rwanda, Congo, Uganda. “It’s been 15 years of doing this,” she said, changing the gear which looked hella hard because you had to impose your will on the gear, you had to demonstrate to the trailer who was the bigger dog.
I asked her about the sufurias at the back as we drove past that section with those big, sad, baobab trees. She said sometimes the truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere and she has to eat until help comes.
“What would you eat? Long-life milk?”
“I have chicken.”
“Frozen chicken?” I asked like a fool.
“No, live chicken.”
“You have live chicken?”
“Yeah,” she grinned.
“You have live chicken in this trailer, right at this moment?” I asked incredulously, looking under my seat.
“It’s not there, it’s in the toolbox at the back.”
“You have chicken in a toolbox at the back?!”
“You have to be prepared.”
Long-distance drivers are supposed to drive for four hours then take a 15-minute break at these stations called Checkmates. We stopped at one in Maungu and parked the trailer with others in a big parking lot. Here their blood sugar and pressure are taken. They also blow to determine if there is alcohol in their system. The vehicle is inspected. The deck checked if they are carrying illegal goods and then their pictures are taken by their lorry. This information is sent to the carrier company. Sick drivers are not allowed to proceed with the journey. I walked to the farthest end of the fence where I peed. When we set off, I realised I had forgotten to ask her to show me the chicken.
We drove until we got to a small center where we parked in a dusty parking lot with other trucks. “They have good food here, let’s have lunch.” Faith said, jumping out. The good food turned out to be minji and chapati. It was unmemorable. I don’t think there is memorable minji. It doesn’t matter what you do with minji, it still tastes like stewed sawdust. There were a handful of drivers in there who ate in silence, heads bowed as if this was their last meal. I paid for the meal and off we went. I forgot about the damned chicken again.
“So if the chicken is in the toolbox,” I asked suddenly as we chugged up a hill, “Where are the tools?”
“I don’t need tools. If this vehicle breaks down, there will be men sent to fix it. Can you imagine me fixing a puncture on this car? It’s impossible. It takes a few men to do it.”
“What if this chicken dies in the toolbox?”
“It can’t die.”
“How do you know?”
“I have carried many chickens in that toolbox and not one has died.”
We sit in silence most of the time, the drone of the trailer’s engine a part of our existence in this cabin. It’s become white noise. Faith wrestles with the gears, finding the right one, listening to the engine. I read. I stare out at the landscape. I try to nap. I think. I think a lot. Mostly nonsensical things. Sometimes I don’t think at all. I just stare out the window like I’ve been heavily medicated. Other times I wonder what’s on Faith’s mind, when she’s alone on these trips, in this cabin, her chicken in the toolbox. “What are you thinking?” I asked her. She said she was thinking of her family. She has a two-year-old son and a husband who was laid off last year. She is never home. In a month she is home for four days. That comes with great guilt. Her son, she says, normally sleeps holding her face tight because he’s afraid he will wake up and find her gone again. Her husband was never cool with this job at the beginning. Truck drivers don’t have the best reputation. Plus it seemed dangerous that his wife was out there, day and night, on the road. Nothing can’t be solved with two people sitting down, she told me. They sat down and then she took him on one of her work trips to see what happened. Then his heart rested. He might have seen his competition; sweaty drivers with bad postures. Now he’s cool.
It’s not easy sitting in a trailer for hours. You get bored with the tedium of motion while you remain immobile. Faith’s done this for the last 15 years, plying this route called the Northern Corridor, a gateway and artery to an extensive economic hinterland stretching across Burundi, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda. It also serves northern Tanzania and southern Ethiopia. The main cargo highway runs from the port city of Mombasa through Nairobi and Kampala to Kisangani in eastern DRC. This is Faith’s bread Blueband. She knows the bends and surface of the roads, the hills and the gradients, the weather and the spots where death awaits. We get stopped by traffic cops at roadblocks, they look up at Faith, money often exchanged hands.
The sun is setting as we pull into Sultan Hamud for a pee break. There she shows me the chicken. Indeed it’s in the toolbox. She often feeds it cabbages or grains. It stares at us, thinking perhaps this is the day it dies.
“How long can it stay there for?”
“Until I decide I feel like having chicken.”
“How often do you feel like having chicken?”
“Are we going to eat this one on this trip?”
When we get to the junction of Machakos shortly before 10pm, she parks the trailer in a secure area and we hang our hats in a motel. I’m exhausted. And dusty. I’m hungry but I’m faced with a choice; look for food or sleep. I sleep on a hard bed. I don’t dream.
We stagger out of Machakos at the first crack of light. It’s cold. I wonder how the chicken slept. It’s too early in the morning to speak for some people but never for me so the moment we set off I’m already mouthing. She tells me her husband came and spent the night. He does that whenever she stops near Nairobi. We pass around Nairobi through the southern bypass. I hop off at a kibanda on the bypass and buy us chapatis and tea in a water bottle. Male drivers honk when they see Faith in the driver’s seat. Many did. Children by roadside wave and shout in excitement. Some men do a double take. Sometimes she flashes oncoming trailers and they flash her back. I asked her why? She says those are women drivers. “There are about two million trailers plying this route, but only 50 have female drivers,” she said. They have to stick together and support each other. They have a group, sort of a chama.
In Naivasha we run into a road closure; The Safari Rally. It’s 10am. Cars, lorries back up and nothing moves. We sit in the vehicle talking. Nairobians open their boots and start drinking and blasting music, soon it becomes a scene from the apocalypse. I think this is how the end of the world will look like; people baking in their cars, drinking, napping, wandering about with beer cans in their hands, zombies, women with children in transit napping under trees by the roadside, hawkers selling biscuits and warm sodas, the whole place infected with boredom and uncertainty and simmering angst. A bus driver called George recognises Faith as she walks back to the trailer from her bathroom break. “It’s you!” He says excitedly. “I read about you.” He shows her a social media story I did. I’m leaning against the door when he turns and says, “It’s you who wrote this?” I tell him no, I’m a turnboy. Soon, other truckers gather around her. Numbers are exchanged. Faith is overwhelmed with joy. She talks about this incident till the following day. She looks at me differently now, like I can do magic tricks. All that attention has electrified her; amazing how “fame” works, it’s intoxicating to some, addictive even. They want more. Faith asks me what else I do, I tell her. She says, “It’s my dream to be written about in a newspaper, will you write about me?” I said we’ll see.
We stay there from 10am until 11pm. I’m dusty and bone-tired by the time we manage to leave. It’s like a wildebeest migration, with everybody scrambling to leave first. Just before Kikopey we find another road closure and join tens of others trailers with their engines switched off on the road, their drivers napping. It’s now knocking 1am. Faith is exhausted so she gets in the back to sleep. I sit there in the darkness. It’s freezing cold. I’m so tired I can barely close my eyes. I dream of standing under a hot shower. I dream of swimming pools. When they open the roads again at 5am, she wakes up and we start moving again as I jump in the back to sleep. Breakfast is past Nakuru, in a nondescript center. Chapatis and minji. Many truck drivers suffer lifestyle diseases because of this diet. It’s not nutritious. It’s bland. It’s the food you eat to feed the body, not nourish it. “Many drivers suffer from diabetes.”
Before we leave, we check up on the chicken. I’m surprised it’s still alive. We chug along, tired this time, speaking less, watching the road. Too tired to read, I listen to music. My stomach is off because of the meals but I can’t have her stop because stopping means time lost and she needs to get to Tororo first and get back to Nairobi. The more trips you do, the more you earn. She does five or so trips in a month, each trip taking something like four to six days. She’s used to the road. She is the road.
We get to the Malaba border at 4pm. There is a bit of a queue, trailers backed up, waiting to be cleared through the border. Lots of time is wasted here but it’s better now, much better, Faith tells me. This is the OSBP the Trademark guys were talking about, which stands for One Stop Border Points which they supported to reduce border crossing times. There are seven OSBPs, four functions- Busia, Namanga, Malaba and Taveta. It was almost 7pm by the time we were crossing.
This is where I bade Faith goodbye. I couldn’t head to Tororo, a mere 20kms away. We had done over 900 kms over three days. My body was crashing. I was filthy; I felt dust in my lungs. My spirit was tamed, no longer able to go through with it. I’m ashamed to say I missed the comfort of a good bed and a good shower. I didn’t say goodbye to the chicken that was about to cross the border and whose fate nobody knew but Faith and her whims. [A joke; why did the chicken cross the border?]
I Imagine that Faith would head back the following morning after unloading the goods that night. That she would drive back alone, spend a day or two with her son, then drive back, maybe to Rwanda or Congo, which sometimes takes two weeks. I didn’t envy her. Faith connects the dots of trade; buildings are built because of the raw materials she delivers used to manufacture cement. Children blow birthday balloons because of the rubber she delivers. Rwandese kids might run in their bathroom sandals, not knowing the feat it took her to deliver them from the port. Or a child sucking on a lollipop in Congo. She’s the invisible link of trade.
It’s tough, that life. It’s tougher if you don’t have a dream because a dream is fuel, it powers you through the struggles of the day. She wants to finally drive trucks in the UK or US. She has a passport ready for that miracle. She’s waiting for God to reveal Himself. “Siku Ya Mungu,” she tells me.
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